POLITICS + GOVERNMENT

Hakeem Jeffries to make history as the first Black lawmaker to lead a party in Congress

Jan 4, 2023, 9:56 AM
House Minority Leader-elect Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., meets with Senate Majority Leader Chuck S...
House Minority Leader-elect Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., meets with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The New York Democrat will almost certainly lead the minority party, once the prolonged floor fight for House speaker comes to a conclusion. He would succeed Nancy Pelosi, who served as speaker in the prior session of Congress when Democrats were in the majority. In addition to being the first Black lawmaker to attain such a position, he also would be the first person voted to lead House Democrats to be born after the end of World War II.

It marks the end of an era — and the start of a new one — for Democrats as Jeffries, at 52, takes up his new position after Pelosi and top-ranking Democrats Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn announced they would be stepping down from their leadership positions. Clyburn is expected to become assistant leader in the new Congress.

House Democrats selected Jeffries to helm their party during a closed-door election in November. He ran unopposed, and Democrats have united around him following Pelosi’s exit from leadership after two decades helming the party. Jeffries will likely be at the forefront of the House Democratic minority for the next two years with Republicans holding a slim majority in the chamber.

The 118th Congress convened on Tuesday with the House failing to vote to elect a new speaker. Republicans nominated GOP leader Kevin McCarthy on three different ballots, along with Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs on the first ballot and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan on the subsequent two, but none of the lawmakers secured the 218 votes needed for the speakership. Democrats nominated Jeffries, who received 212 votes, more than any of the Republican challengers, though also not enough to win.

While Republican quarrels prevented the election of a new speaker Tuesday, Democrats displayed unwavering support for Jeffries. At one point, Democrats in the chamber chanted “Hakeem, Hakeem,” while standing and clapping for their soon-to-be leader. Jeffries’ lead over McCarthy represented a win for Democrats on the first day with the GOP in the majority as the speakership election went to multiple rounds of balloting.

The election for speaker was adjourned Tuesday night after several hours of voting and is expected to resume at noon Wednesday.

Once the speaker is elected and lawmakers are sworn in, a formal announcement of party leaders takes place — with Jeffries poised to become minority leader at that time since Republicans will control the House majority in the new Congress. However, there is still time for Republicans to fumble the gavel, giving Jeffries a shot, if near zero, at attaining the speakership.

Jeffries told reporters Tuesday he is not willing at this point to help Republicans elect a speaker.

“We are looking for a willing partner to solve problems for the American people, not save the Republicans from their dysfunction,” Jeffries said.

Jeffries was born in Brooklyn, New York, and studied political science at the State University of New York at Binghamton and received a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University. He also attended law school at New York University School of Law where he was on the law review.

He started his career in politics after being elected to the New York State Assembly in 2006. In 2012, he was elected to New York’s 8th congressional district, which includes parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

During his time in Congress, Jeffries has pushed for policing reform, including a national ban on chokeholds following the death of Eric Garner, a Black man who died in 2014 after being held in the restraining move. He was also instrumental in the passage of the First Step Act and co-sponsored the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that passed the House but failed in the Senate.

In 2019, he became chairman of the Democratic caucus, making him the youngest member serving in leadership. Jeffries was also part of a select group of lawmakers who were impeachment managers during the Senate trial of then-President Donald Trump.

Jeffries, who was first elected in 2012, will embark on his sixth term with ambitions to restore the enhanced child tax credit, get his party back to the majority in 2024, call out what he describes as Republican extremism and rebuild economic access.

“I just look forward to the opportunity to do the most good for the greatest number of people possible for as long as I have the opportunity to do so and can operate at the highest level,” he told CNN last month.

Jeffries ascending to become one of the highest-ranking Black politicians ever in America comes as a record number of Black people assume their role in Congress. They will navigate the Capitol, making decisions for their constituents, in a building where the foundation was laid by slaves.

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Hakeem Jeffries to make history as the first Black lawmaker to lead a party in Congress